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The fish that built Lofoten

Even though the Arctic cod only shows up once a year, it has been paramount in shaping Lofoten as we know it today.

In the far north of Nordland county, the Lofoten Islands stretch out into the Norwegian Sea like a row of teeth. Ever since the Viking Age, the islands have played an important role in fishing for the Norwegian Arctic cod or "Skrei" (pronounced 'skrey'), which come here to spawn in the winter months.

Life in Lofoten

The fishing industry has left many a mark in the history of Lofoten, and is still important for people who live out here. You can experience this for yourself by visiting one of the many fishing villages, such as Reine, Nusfjord, Å or Henningsvær.

Today, many traveller's dreams of staying in a fisherman's cabin in the Lofoten islands is associated with holiday bliss and long, light summer nights. The cabins were originally a place to stay for the fishermen who took part in the "lofotfiske" fishing season from February to April.

Nusfjord, one of the oldest and best-preserved fishing villages in Lofoten. There are between 80,000 and 90,000 visitors each year to this village alone.

Renate Johansen was born and raised in Nusfjord. When she got the job as Operations Manager, she moved home with her daughter and her partner Eirin Johansen who is now home economist and janitor.

Renate is a trained chef, but when you are running a fishing village, you must help out where it is needed. When the "alarm" sounds, whoever is available must get to work.

"It is more a lifestyle than a job. Guests come at any given time. We don't go home at four o'clock," says Renate.

Well preserved

If you would like to experience the authentic Lofoten and enjoy the real fisherman's experience, then Nusfjord is one of several options. Some of the cabins date back a couple of hundred years, and you can be sure that a fisherman has lived there, says Renate Johansen.

"We want to take care of the authentic culture," she says.

Today, the fishing village has 28 permanent residents, but at its peak, there were 500 boats and 1,500 men here during the annual 'Lofotfiske' fishing season. Not much has changed since that time.

The general store from 1907 looks exactly the same as when it opened its doors the first time over a hundred years ago. Renate's father was born and raised in a "rorbu" or fisherman's cabin, and aside from the road to Nusfjord, which was not built until the 1960s, things are mostly the same as when he was a kid.

The smell of money

Local fish does not necessarily mean fresh fish. Norwegian Arctic cod is fished in the winter.

"There is a misconception that you eat fresh fish all year round. Norwegian Arctic cod enters the Barents Sea during the summer," says Renate Johansen.

If you visit Lofoten in the summer, you will quickly notice the intense smell of dried fish.

"In Lofoten, we say that it does not smell so bad, but rather that it is the 'smell of money'," she laughs.

Fishing fever

The first time Captain Jan Martin Johansen crewed on a boat, he had not started school yet. Together with Svein Kristiansen, Jan Martin now takes fishing tourists out to try their fishing luck onboard the over 60-year-old fishing boat "Elltor".

Both have a life as professional fishermen behind them, but instead of participating in ordinary fishing operations, they now take fishing tourists out to sea. The captain says that trips take three hours, and are suitable for people of all ages.

"I started as skipper here in 2008. It's perfect for a retired fisherman," he says with a smile.

A tough life

"My first season as a fisherman was in 1976. I was fishing with my father then. I took over my own boat in 1999," says the captain of the fishing boat "Elltor", Jan Martin Johansen.

It was tougher to be a fisherman in the old days. Many barely scraped out a living and the sea has also taken many lives. But the fishing life has been through a bit of a revolution, says Jan Martin.

For, whereas his father stood at the helm the whole day, nowadays everything is done by machines and you find out everything you need to know on a screen.

"The days of harsh toil are gone," he says.

His colleague, Svein Kristiansen, nods in agreement. He started as a fisherman in 1959 but had to stop when he injured his hand in 1982. He has been a janitor in Nusfjord since then.

Experienced at sea

Svein Kristiansen has hunted for just about everything you can find below the surface of the sea. As a fisherman-farmer, he had a small farm, but spent most of his time at sea:

"We followed the fish in order to have earnings enough to make a living," he says.

Finances were in good shape following the Lofotfiske fishing season.

"We would then head to Finnmark in May, June and July to fish haddock, and return in October to do longline fishing in the local fishing grounds."

He has also fished for shrimp, in addition to having been a whaler for seven or eight seasons.

"It was hard work and lacked the comfort that you see today. We had no shower or toilet on board," he says.

At the same time, being a fisherman is a life of freedom, where you are your own master.

"I remember one trip in the early 1960s. We spent fourteen days at sea and got 30 tonnes of cusk and 150 halibut in sizes ranging from 30 to 200 kilos. It was no life for computer boys," laughs Svein.

History of the Lofoten islands

"The red houses date from around 1850, but the farmhouse is 200 years old - from circa 1815-16. It is one of the oldest houses in the Lofoten Islands," says the museum educator and curator in medieval history, Lena Karlstrøm.

If you visit the Lofoten Museum in Storvågan at Kabelvåg, you can walk around at one of the best-preserved farms in Lofoten, which once belonged to a fishing station owner.

It was the fishing station owner who owned the land in the fishing village and rented out the cabins to fishermen, explains Lena.

The land here is also historical. The site where the Lofoten Museum is located today was also the location of the medieval town of Vågar - Northern Norway's first city that can be traced back to the 1100s. It was from here that the dried fish began its long voyage toward the European market, and Vågar is believed to have long been the most important trading place in the whole of Norway.

Old lodgings

At the Lofoten Museum, you can learn about the history of fishermen in Lofoten and see how the cabins were furnished for their original purpose.

The fishermen came here in open boats, and thousands of men were dependent on renting a place on land where they could sleep and hold up during the frigid winter nights. It was common that up to twelve men shared a fisherman's cabin furnished with four bunks.

At the museum, you can go inside the oldest fisherman's cabin in Lofoten, Skrovabua, dating from 1797. Here, the beds are so short that it is impossible to stretch out, but there were still often two men in each bed.

"It was normal to sleep sitting upright," says museum educator Lena Karlstrøm with a smile.

Sea eagle safaris in Henningsvær

Rolf Malnes from Henningsvær scans up toward the mountains and waves the fish he has in his hand. A dark shadow suddenly appears from near the mountainside, and not long after that, the silhouette of Northern Europe's largest bird of prey comes into view against the sky above.

Rolf recognizes every single one of the sea eagles that inhabit the fjords around the fishing village of Henningsvær. Since 1995, he has run Lofoten Opplevelser, which is one of several companies that organise nature-based adventures with RIB (rigid inflatable) boats up here.

Each year he takes along several thousand people out in their boats, and one of the main attractions is getting close to one of the many sea eagles in this area.

"We have a focus on culture, history and wildlife. Guiding is an important part of the experience, and we hope the guests also learn something about the gruelling toil it has been for people to live here," says Rolf.

New industry

A sea eagle dives down at great speed, before using its razor-sharp claws and millimetre precision to grab the fish Rolf Malnes has thrown into the water near the boat. Whereas the white-tailed sea eagle population has picked up, the number of fishermen is no longer what it once was:

"In 1947, there were around 10,000 non-local fishermen in Henningsvær during the winter cod fishing season. There were 69 fish landings, while today there are five left. Nevertheless, today Henningsvær is a village experiencing growth," says Rolf Malnes.

Nowadays, the fishing village is being populated by an increasing number of galleries and restaurants, and more and more tourists are wanting to see the area's impressive natural scenery in person.

"It is important to preserve the fishing village environment, and we hope that we can live off a combination of fishing and tourism for many years," says Rolf.

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